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Fri10232020

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No, not all of the great shows are here; 2016 served up too much quality TV to contain in this space, while not all of the great shows rise to the level of year-end best lists. (Too many other critical lists are surrendering space to Stranger Things; just sayin’.)

These 16 shows are binge-worthy alternatives to holiday family time—Merry Xmas!

Westworld (HBO): This Westworld was smarter, sleeker and more terrifying than its 1973 origin flick, but it also imbued the Wild West park’s androids with a tragic “humanity.” (Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton for all of the awards.) It also reminded us that actual flesh-and-blood humans are just the worst.

Veep (HBO): Now more than ever, huh? Vice president-turned-president-turned-footnote Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) suffered an exhausting political beating months before the rest of us did in 2016, but at least hers was funny (and slightly more F-bomb-heavy). Forget IdiocracyVeep is our republic’s true guide.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix): Animated series BoJack Horseman has always been about the aggressive shallowness of Hollywood and celebrity, but Season 3 went deeper and darker (and more experimental, including a dialogue-free underwater episode) than ever before. It’s also funny as hell. OK, it’s everything as hell.

Lady Dynamite (Netflix): Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite was a meta-comedy that did for bipolar disorder what BoJack Horseman did for depression and Jessica Jones did for PTSD: It made entertaining, thoughtful art out of the usually “too heavy” to talk about. Both way surreal and way real … sounds good, feels right.

Quarry (Cinemax): This overlooked, 1972-set crime-noir series is grittily crafted down to the most minute details, spun with jarring twists, and anchored by Logan Marshall-Green’s intense, mercurial performance as a reluctant hit man. It’s the Memphis-barbecued second season of True Detective you really wanted.

Better Call Saul (AMC): The debut of Better Call Saul was a fantastic surprise that expanded upon Breaking Bad, building its own pre-Heisenberg world. From hilarious to heartbreaking, Season 2 further transformed small-time Albuquerque lawyer Slippin’ Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) into future legal shark Saul Goodman.

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC): Behind Saul, Halt and Catch Fire is AMC’s best drama, even if it doesn’t generate Walking Dead numbers. The ’80s-set computer-revolution saga moved to Silicon Valley in Season 3, amping the startup fireworks between Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé, who overshadowed even Lee Pace (!).

Mr. Robot (USA): Elliot (Rami Malek) and hacker group fsociety brought down E(vil) Corp at conclusion of Season 1, but it just caused more problems than it solved. Mr. Robot 2.0 was less buzzy, and trickier to follow, but it gave Elliot’s circle (especially Carly Chaikin and Portia Doubleday) space to shine.

Goliath (Amazon Prime): David E. Kelley and Billy Bob Thornton streamed a classic Los Angeles legal-noir drama that overcame a middling plot with killer performances from Maria Bello, Molly Parker, Nina Arianda, Tania Raymonde, William Hurt and, of course, Thornton himself. Binge with a stiff drink—or eight.

Atlanta (FX): Donald Glover’s Atlanta wasn’t what anyone expected. Something far more than a comedy (though there are hilarious moments) or a drama (ditto, heavy moments), it unfolded like an indie flick in no hurry to get any Big Moments, and depicted the flat-broke-and-black experience with unflinching detail.

Better Things (FX): One of the rawest comedic TV portrayals of single motherhood ever, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things swung from sweet to sad to snarky with an assured precision that her creative partner, Louis C.K., never quite nailed with Louie. Subtle jabs at Hollywood’s treatment of women are just a bonus.

You’re the Worst (FXX): The Only Anti-Rom-Com That Matters got back on track after some downer detours last year—which isn’t to say You’re the Worst didn’t take chances in Season 3. Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) may never work out, but it’s sweet (and profanely hilarious) to watch them fail.

Shameless (Showtime): Emmy Rossum, who’s played Shameless’ surrogate Gallagher mom Fiona for seven seasons now, recently got a pay bump to at least equal co-star William H. Macy’s salary. Coincidentally, she also turned in her best, most heartbreaking work this year. ’Merica isn’t Modern Family; it’s Shameless.

The Good Place (NBC): Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are an unbeatable comic combo, and fears that afterlife sitcom The Good Place would be too weird for broadcast TV were apparently unfounded: It’s a (relative) NBC hit and, even better, the Jesus people are mightily offended by this inclusive version of “Heaven.”

Wynonna Earp (Syfy): If you were somewhat disappointed with Syfy’s recent zero-fun heroine epic Van Helsing—I know I was was—look back a little further in 2016 for Wynonna Earp, a Buffy the Gunslinger supernatural series that star Melanie Scrofano tore up with quippy glee. Also: hot Doc Holliday!

Not Safe With Nikki Glaser (Comedy Central): Nikki Glaser’s Not Safe was a sex-and-relationships talk show that combined intelligence, real information and filthy comedy that more than lived up to the show’s title. So, of course, Comedy Central canceled it after 20 episodes to make room for more Tosh.0. For shame.

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May is mostly a dead zone of season finales and reruns as TV gears up for the summer. (There’s no off-season anymore; get used to it.) But! Remember all those shows I’ve told you to watch harder in this very column? You know, the shows that are all readily available in various on-demand forms? Now’s the time to catch up! Here’s 12 to start with:

Wynonna Earp (Syfy): Wynonna Earp (Melanie Scrofano) is a modern-day descendent of Old West gunslinger Wyatt Earp, who was also a supernatural demon hunter (just roll with it), and she’s back in town to re-smite evil souls (or Revenants). It’s all true enough to the comic-book source, and Scrofano is a likable combo of badass and goofball.

Orphan Black (BBC America): In Season 4 of tense clone-soap Orphan Black, Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) investigates Beth, the deceased sister-clone whose identity she stole at the beginning of the series, as well as the origins of the clone conspiracy. Also, there are more clones, upping Maslany’s character load for the season to eight (and still no Emmy).

Hap and Leonard (Sundance): Hap and Leonard is a six-episode tale about ’80s Texans Hap (James Purefoy) and Leonard (Michael K. Williams), a pair of luckless laborers dragged into a get-rich-suspiciously-easy scheme by Hap’s ex-wife (Christina Hendricks). The plan soon spirals into a cacophony of conflicting agendas and colorful characters, with Fargo-like comic-to-violent jolts.

Idiotsitter (Comedy Central): An unemployed Ivy Leaguer (Charlotte Newhouse) takes a baby-sitting job—but the “baby” turns out to be an adult wild-child heiress (Jillian Bell) under house arrest. As the series progresses (or regresses), it’s clear that Bell and Newhouse can do stoopid repartee almost as well as the Broad City ladies. All this, and a Channing Tatum cameo!

Baskets (FX): Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis), having flunked out of a prestigious French clown academy, returns to uncultured ’Merica to be a rodeo clown—and then it gets weird. (Chip’s mom is Louie Anderson in drag, for just one example.) Baskets is a funny-to-sad-to-funnier-to-sadder commentary on artistic failure and Western decline, but don’t be afraid.

Better Call Saul (AMC): Better Call Saul continues to be a minor-miracle follow-up to, and expansion on, Breaking Bad in a flawless second season, further transforming small-time lawyer Slippin’ Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) into medium-time legal shark Saul Goodman. Even better, Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean and Jonathan Banks get equal time to shine.

Banshee (Cinemax): Season 4 will be the last for this gritty slice of Amish-country crime noir, so there’s hope for eventually catching up on Banshee. The twisted tale of an ex-con/thief (Antony Starr) who assumes the identity of Sheriff Lucas Hood in the small town of Banshee, Pa., has taken many a bizarre turn, but the outcome is always the same (and bloody).

Vinyl (HBO): Vinyl is as excessive and beautiful as you’d expect a collaboration between Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and Mick Jagger to be, mixing Almost Famous’ music-saves earnestness with Velvet Goldmine’s visceral glam bombast and Boogie Nights’ druggy chaos—and cranking it to 11 in 1974 NYC. It’s not perfect, but neither is rock ’n’ roll.

The Detour (TBS): Jason Jones (The Daily Show) and Natalie Zea (Justified) star as harried parents on a family road-trip where everything that could possibly go wrong does—spectacularly. Sound like National Lampoon’s Vacation? It is, but far funnier than last year’s limp Vacation reboot—and usually dramatic Zea is a comedic revelation.

Billions (Showtime): Damian Lewis (as a charismatic hedge-fund billionaire) and Paul Giamatti (as a troubled U.S. attorney) churn bluster and testosterone Acting! against each other, but they’re not Billions’ most interesting players: Maggie Siff, as a psychiatrist-turned-performance-coach with an invisible, spooky command, could lead this series on her own.

Teachers (TV Land): Teachers is a part of TV Land’s makeover from reheated sitcom repository to smart comedy destination, and six-woman improv troupe The Katydids (their first names are all variations on “Katherine”) gender-flip Super Troopers into an elementary school, dosed with Broad City’s fearless, vanity-free pursuit of so-wrong laughs.

Not Safe With Nikki Glaser (Comedy Central): Comic Nikki Glaser gets right down to topics like “losing your virginity, masturbation and putting stuff in your butt!” Not Safe is a sex-and-relationships talk show with fellow-comedian gab and pre-taped bits—it’s been done before, but Glaser has the smarts and presence to rise to the level of Amy Schumer.

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Animals (Friday, Feb. 5, HBO), series debut: HBO’s history with animated series is sparse but solid; the most-recent network original, canceled 2008-12 obscurity The Life and Times of Tim, was a dry, hilarious slice of weirdness that more than deserved a second chance on Adult Swim. (Come on, HBO and Adult Swim are owned by the same media megacorp—why can’t we Family Guy Tim back from the grave, already?) Anyway: The new Animals comes from the Duplass brothers, the guys who brought you HBO’s Togetherness and many far-less-watchable indie-flicks; this sharply-drawn cartoon hints that maybe the bros have been wasting their time on humans. Animals follows the daily lives of dogs, cats, rats, mice, horses, birds and bugs in New York City, arguably the worst residence on Earth for wildlife. The tropes are NYC comedy-typical (relationships, racial tensions, jealousies, being swallowed by snakes, etc.), but Animals’ deep bench of voice talents and clever critter-specific writing makes even 30 seconds of a rat with a podcast (voiced by Marc Maron, of course) more entertaining than the 79 minutes of the Duplass’ The Overnight that I’ll never get back. However, you probably won’t want to live with a pet ever again.

Manson’s Lost Girls (Saturday, Feb. 6, Lifetime), movie: Everything’s coming up Manson! Not only will NBC’s Aquarius, wherein David Duchovny hunts 1960s cult-leader-in-the-making Charles Manson, return this year; now there’s a Lifetime movie about the original hipster. More accurately, as per the title, Manson’s Lost Girls is about Linda Kasabian (MacKenzie Mauzy), Susan Atkins (Eden Brolin) and Leslie Van Houten (Greer Grammer), teen girls lured into Manson’s SoCal Spahn Ranch commune by free love, drugs and—just where The Man said it would lead—the occasional murder spree. This movie’s Manson (Jeff Ward) is at least more menacing than Aquarius’ hippie bore, but Manson’s Lost Girls didn’t even license the better tunes of the time. (The Turtles? Donovan? Bummer.)

Super Bowl 50 (Sunday, Feb. 7, CBS), sportsball event: I’ve been calling for dropping the pretentious Roman numerals from the Super Bowl ever since this column launched in the late ’70s in the back of The Koupon Klipper, and it’s finally happened! Vindication! And now I suppose the National Felons League (Ha! See what I did there?) will be looking for some free ink on their little football match this year—not gonna happen. The Carolina Putas and the Denver Bunkos … eh, close enough … will have to scramble for publicity on their own, and the less said about the halftime show (Coldplay … seriously, Coldplay), the better. Wait, what? The Roman numerals will be back in 2017? Oh, you bastards …

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (Monday, Feb. 8, TBS), series debut: The late-night talk show “sausage fest,” as former Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee calls it, has settled into a predictable groove: Jimmy Fallon does celebrity playtime; Stephen Colbert remains too smart for ’Merica; Jimmy Kimmel snags the A-listers; James Corden does celebrity playtime on MDMA; and Carson Daly is … still on, right? Meanwhile, Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore are trying like hell to return their Comedy Central block to greatness, and my two personal favorites, Seth Meyers and Conan O’Brien, still manage to surprise occasionally. So what does Conan’s new nightly lead-in, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, bring to the fray? Since, like you, I haven’t seen the show yet, I’ll say … a vagina. Late night is better already!

Not Safe With Nikki Glaser (Tuesday, Feb. 9, Comedy Central), series debut: Between Chelsea Lately and Full Frontal, MTV gave two women a shot in late-night talk: 2013’s Nikki and Sara Live was one of the funniest and freshest shows the network ever launched—so, naturally, it had to be canceled after 24 episodes. In her new series sans Sara Schaefer, Nikki Glaser will focus less on celebrity pop culture and get right down to topics like “losing your virginity, masturbation and putting stuff in your butt!” Not Safe is a sex-and-relationships talk show with fellow-comedian interviews and pre-taped bits—it’s been done before, but Glaser has the smarts and presence to eventually rise to the comic level of Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer. Also, she’s on Comedy Central, not MTV, so maybe she’ll be around for a while.

Published in TV